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How to Engage Youth in Healing

Donna Murphy

Reprinted from "Suicide" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2 (7), p. 29-30

Most youth have not had any experience with death. Some may have lost a grandparent or a beloved pet, but for the most part young people have no frame of reference for death. Adolescents are also at an age when they believe they will live forever. They have no fear and take risks that can put their lives in danger. So, when a beloved friend dies by suicide, they are faced, for the first time, with the finality of death. They find it difficult to accept that this death is real, and that their friend will not be returning from “a visit out of town.”

As a mom who has experienced youth suicide, I know what has made a difference to the young people in my life. On April 3, 1997, my beloved son Kelly died by suicide at the age of 18. I thought I would never be able to be a mother again, but have remarried and am now blessed with an 18-yearold stepdaughter, Jessica. On June 16, 2004, the unthinkable happened—Jessica lost a very dear friend to suicide. This threw me back to where I had been seven years before, and made me think of all the young people who have lost friends to suicide, and how they handle the recovery process very differently than adults do.

The best way to get young people to engage in the healing process is for professionals and other caring adults to go to the places where the young people gather. This happened in Surrey and Delta, where these two young people had lived and where their friends attended school. In both cases, critical incidence counsellors were immediately brought in to visit the schools. These counsellors reached out to the friends and were able to encourage and refer those in need to individual counselling.

This practice of going to the school and just listening and encouraging students to take care of themselves can set young people on the road to healing. Some friends will engage with a bereavement counsellor and begin to work through the stages of grieving.

Many young people came to visit me after Kelly’s death. Kelly’s best friends (whom I lovingly refer to as “the group”) came to our door with flowers for me. They took off their hats and came into the house, letting me know of their sadness. They had come to pay their respects—and to see that I was doing okay and that I still accepted them after such a loss.

Many of Kelly’s friends continue to come around or call, just to touch base and make sure I am still okay. It seems that the sound of my voice, and the knowledge that I am once again happy, has had a tremendous impact on their lives.

The funeral of a friend, with its finality, is a very sad event for young people. The ones who have fared best are those accompanied to the funeral by their parents or other trusted adults.

It is very important that young people be able to perform their own rituals and to say goodbye in their own way. Their way may be different from more traditional ways of mourning, but it is very important in the healing process for them to express their grief. At both of the funerals friends came with gifts, which were left in the coffins— gifts that didn’t always meet with the approval of the adults involved. Some of the young people wrote poems, and many had a chance to speak about their friend during the funeral service. In these ways they honoured the friend they had lost.

Another thing that has made a difference to the young people I know is for them to have a place to go to remember their friend on special anniversaries or other occasions. This may be the cemetery, or it could just be a place where they used to hang out. On her friend’s anniversary, Jessica told me that her friends had gone to the cemetery to visit and have a little talk. And, Kelly’s friends will show up at the cemetery on his birthday, at Christmas or on other occasions, just to say “hello” and to let him know what they are doing with their lives.

It seems that, as different as youth are from the adults in their lives, they are also very much the same. For many young people, the grieving process is long. But time is the greatest healer, and youth are resilient. Those who made a prompt connection for counselling, have strong friendships and have good adult role models in their lives are able to speak of their grief and get on with their lives. They have sad moments, just like I do, when they remember what might have been if their friend had been able to make it through that time when all seemed so hopeless. They give those moments to their friend, but then come back to the present and move on.

About the Author

Donna is a Secondary Special Education Helping Teacher for the Surrey School District. Since her son Kelly’s death she has worked as a member of the FORCE Society for Kid’s Mental Health to ensure that quality of care is available to all families in BC

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